Ahed Tamimi’s Story Puts a New Face on Israeli-Palestinian Divide
For many Palestinians and other more objective parties, however, Tamimi’s engagement of Israeli troops by kicking, shoving, and slapping them alongside her mother, Nariman, and cousin, Nour, after her cousin Mohammed was shot in the head with a rubber bullet does not warrant the kind of response she received from the Israeli government and legal system. By this token, for a 16- (now 17-year-old) girl to be tried in a military court after being detained for her role in a violent December protest in her home village of Nabi Saleh as well as for shouting at and slapping an Israeli soldier may well be judged as excessive. True, the Israeli soldiers depicted in the viral video that helped spread Ahed Tamimi’s fame did not retaliate when approached by the three Tamimi women outside of their (the Tamimis’) home back in December 2017, and Ahed and her family are known for a history of outward expression in opposition to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Still, Ahed Tamimi is a minor. Even if she is ostensibly an adult, it’s hard to expect her to behave more rationally, so to speak, especially not after witnessing her cousin, also a minor, sustain a serious injury, and not after being born into a world of her people’s subjugation through violence and other means.
Because of her perceived bravery and defiance against Israel even while preparing to go to jail—Tamimi, in accepting a plea deal to serve eight months in prison and pay a 5,000-shekel fine (roughly $1,500), spoke in Arabic of there being “no justice under occupation” and referring to the Israeli court trying her as “illegitimate”—Ahed has earned her status as a symbol of resistance, particularly among Palestinians and more generally in the eyes of those who object to what they see as Israel’s militarism. Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, for one, known for his iconic red-and-black poster image of Che Guevara, raised eyebrows when he depicted Tamimi as the “real Wonder Woman” carrying the Palestinian flag.
For Fitzpatrick, the allusion to Wonder Woman is about more than just admiration for and sympathy for Ahed Tamimi; it also deliberately invokes Gal Gadot, who portrayed Wonder Woman in film, and who served in the Israel Defense Forces and who has espoused pro-IDF views to noted criticism. At least as far as he is concerned, Tamimi’s “violent” acts are akin to “being hit by a rabbit,” and regarding the state of Israel and its treatment of dissenters and people of different races, Fitzpatrick likens it to a virtual apartheid state. (Speaking of apartheid, South Africa, for its part, recently indicated its intentions to cut diplomatic ties with Israel, with the United States’ decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital not exactly helping.)
At this point, it would seem to be worth questioning of how much utility the actions of Ahed Tamimi and her family or the hardline stances taken by the powers-that-be in Israel really are. The Tamimis have been criticized, most notably in Israeli circles, for making a show of their suffering, exaggerating details and dressing and looking like Westerners (Ahed is distinctly reddish-blonde-haired with blue eyes) to try to make Israel look bad. Even some Palestinians might object to her not wearing a traditional head covering. Additionally, and to reiterate, the IDF soldiers berated and struck by Ahed Tamimi did not respond back with threats or violence. Viewing this video in a vacuum, someone less familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or unaware of the context would easily be tempted to treat the Tamimis as instigators and agitators.
As much as figures like Avigdor Lieberman, Michael Oren (Deputy Minister and member of the 20th Knesset as a representative of the Kulanu party instrumental in a probe which questioned whether or not the Tamimi family is a bunch of paid actors), and Naftali Bennett may insist on making an example of Ahed Tamimi as a means of dissuading Palestinian activists from trying to turn public sentiment against Israel, in doing so, they may be doing a great job themselves of helping alienating the segment of the international community not already beholden to Zionist leanings. If reports on Tamimi’s treatment while being detained are accurate and indicative of a larger pattern of abuse, too, the favoritism shown to Israel by Zionists and the pro-Israel lobby merits at least some categorization.
Jesse Rosenfeld, in a piece for The Daily Beast, comments on what is deemed “exclusive” interrogation video of Ahed Tamimi’s interrogation during her detention back in December of last year. Rosenfeld begins with a little context, discussing Tamimi’s aforementioned gesture of defiance in advance of accepting her plea deal, her family’s involvement in regular protests against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank within the village of Nabi Saleh, and her going viral and serving as an inspiration to both Westerners and non-Westerners, among other things. He also highlights the idea that while Tamimi’s arrest was made very public by the Israeli army and Israeli TV news, as somewhat of a concession to right-wingers, courtroom proceedings were closed to the public and records of her trial were sealed. The military court judge presiding over Tamimi’s case indicated this was done out of respect for the “rights of the minor.”
Keeping in mind the very public nature of Ahed Tamimi’s arrest, however, and in light of the contents of the interrogation obtained by The Daily Beast, this seems like less of a concern for “the minor’s rights” and more of a deliberate attempt to reduce transparency, an obvious point of worry for human rights advocates. What was revealed on the interrogation video would seem to confirm those fears. Throughout the interrogation, Tamimi asserts her right to remain silent, refusing to answer even the most basic questions and even initially refusing the water and sandwich she is offered. There are two interrogators on hand, though one does most of the questioning/talking. He alternates disturbingly between flirting with her—recall that Tamimi is 16 at the time of this interrogation—and threatening her, her family, and her friends.
Perhaps worse yet, she may have gotten off relatively easy. According to the Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the Israel Security Agency has for decades subjected Palestinian detainees to physical and psychological torture, and currently, close to 6,000 Palestinians are being detained by Israeli forces. Besides this, as Rosenfeld tells and as documented by Human Rights Watch in 1993, Ahed Tamimi need look no further than her own family history; her father, Bassem, was put into a coma by an Israeli interrogator and his sister was killed when a translator pushed her down a set of stairs and broke her neck. Rosenfeld indicates that Ahed Tamimi remains stoic throughout most of the interrogation, with a look of disinterest as much as anything, but that her “expression melts into a look of horror followed by melancholy” as these threats against her kith and kin are expressed. He then muses that it is “hardly surprising” that Tamimi would react in this way given the aforementioned abuses, and we are compelled to agree.
Adding insult to injury, Tamimi’s eight-month sentence reached through plea deal is but a few months less than the one served by Elor Azaria, an IDF medic who, after Palestinian assailant Abdel Fattah al-Sharif had been shot and severely injured, killed al-Sharif with a shot to the head. Azaria was originally considered a murder suspect, but ultimately was convicted of manslaughter, and while he has served time and has been sentenced with probation and a demotion in rank, that his prison term and that of Ahed Tamimi are roughly the same despite vastly different offenses suggests something may be fundamentally wrong with the Israeli justice system, especially as regards disparities for Palestinians vs. Israeli citizens. Moreover, the sharp divide in public opinions about Azaria’s and Tamimi’s cases echo our own uneven relationship in the United States with what is considered proper procedure by officers of the law and/or military. For those who would see these issues as black-and-white, indeed, there appear to be numerous shades of gray with respect to what is deemed acceptable and what is not.
In commenting on the detention and prosecution of Ahed Tamimi, I am not trying to claim either side in the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian struggle is inherently good or bad. Without wanting to appear as heavy-handed as our beloved President by saying there is “blame on both sides” in reference to the events of Charlottesville, VA, there have been, are, and will continue to be offenders at both extremes—Israeli and Palestinian alike.
I’m also not particularly interested in relativistic thinking regarding whose offenses have been worse, especially since I am not so well-versed in the goings-on of this region. Besides, as time wears on, support among Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution to this conflict is evidently increasing, as is their desire to see an end to armed conflict surrounding the divide. Opinions are yet decidedly mixed on these issues, however, and to boot, many Israelis and Palestinians may tend to believe that either a like-minded majority on the other side of the conflict or a like-minded majority within society at large doesn’t exist. This is not to say that the distance between sides is necessarily and primarily a mental or psychological one, but it is worth noting how a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts can play a role in this regard.
Without, in turn, wanting to appear as creepy as Ahed Tamimi’s main interrogator as depicted by Jesse Rosenfeld, or wanting to give much credence to the views espoused by Michael Oren re the notion she and her family are paid actors, it strikes me as unfortunate that people seem to care more about this issue, well, because Ahed is fair-skinned and photogenic. In the title to this piece, I alluded to Tamimi’s story putting “a new face” on Israeli-Palestinian relations, and while her popularity among Palestinians not only likely speaks to frustration with Palestinian leadership as much as it does the power of handheld devices and social media to influence views, that she is of note even in Western circles (or notoriety, depending on your politics) seems attributable to things not related to her and her family’s confrontational brand of activism.
While someone like Rosenfeld or Jim Fitzpatrick, for instance, might grasp the situation in light of the threats made against Tamimi and the larger context of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, other media seems more enthralled with her curls or turning her into an icon. I myself admittedly didn’t know of her Ahed Tamimi’s story until reading Rosenfeld’s article on The Daily Beast, and this may be indicative of a blind spot that exists regarding Israel and the Middle East at large unless Trump, the pro-Israel lobby, and/or right-of-center Israelis are involved and raising a fuss. At the very least, it suggests an unwillingness of American media and politicians to do or say anything that might rile up the staunch pro-Israel crowd, or for that matter, endanger their financial and political support.
That Ahed Tamimi’s entanglement with the Israeli military court system might facilitate meaningful discussion on broader matters of inequities in criminal justice systems in the West and East, as well as the West’s interaction with the Arab world, is a positive development. Certainly, the response her detention and trial has received on an international front and how she is being hailed as a hero and leader before the age of 18 is inspiring in the way the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School becoming activists and motivators gives one hope that real progress can be made on the issue of gun policy reform in the United States. Conversely, though, idealizing or fetishizing her image seems only to take away from any momentum gained in building a fruitful dialog. Ahed Tamimi isn’t Jeanne d’Arc, and pejorative references to her as “Shirley Temper” by Israeli media are equally problematic. At the end of the day, she’s one teenage girl unable to live the life of a “normal” teenage girl caught up in a conflict that existed long before she was alive, and it’s going to take more than her viral video of slapping an Israeli soldier to make authentic, lasting change happen.